Senate Veterans' Affairs Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, accompanied by House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., speaks during a July 28 news conference on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
In a dramatic legislative turnaround, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees on Monday unveiled plans for a $17 billion compromise VA reform bill that funds the hiring of more clinicians, expands private care options and makes it easier to fire Veterans Affairs Department executives.
The deal, if approved later this week, gives lawmakers a surprising success story to take back to their home districts as Congress begins its extended, pre-election legislative break.
The comprehensive veterans measure is one of only a few significant bills to become law this year, and comes after weeks of promises that leaders from both parties would move quickly to address recent VA scandals.
“This bill makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “It strengthens VA so that it will be able to hire the doctors, nurses and medical personnel it needs so we can permanently put an end to long waiting lists.”
The price tag includes $5 billion requested by VA officials to hire clinicians and renovate underused VA spaces, in an effort to address long-term problems with veterans waiting for care.
But another $10 billion is targeted for a short-term fix to that problem: a dramatic expansion of private-care options for veterans who face waits of 30 days or longer for appointments, or who live more than 40 miles from the closest VA health facilities.
It will also pay for leases at 27 new medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico, to give more VA options to veterans.
The measure also includes language making it easier for senior VA officials to be fired by the department secretary, a proposal that has drawn strong support from lawmakers and outside critics.
Over the last three months, dozens of VA officials have been accused of gaming records to cover up facility problems or protect performance bonuses. Lawmakers have decried a corrosive culture within the bureaucracy, and demanded more accountability throughout the department.
Under the compromise, executives fired for mismanagement or poor performance would have a chance to appeal the move, and would be guaranteed an answer within a month.
The remaining $2 billion will pay for a host of unrelated veterans’ measures that both chambers had addressed in previous, incomplete bills, including granting in-state tuition rates to any veteran attending a public college, extending housing funds for veterans with traumatic brain injuries, and expanding care for military sexual trauma victims.
To pay for the measure, Congress will use about $5 billion in offsets from VA programs and $12 billion in emergency funding. That could prove to be a tough sell among fiscally conservative House members, who had balked at previous proposals that would have added to the deficit.
Sanders has insisted for weeks that the VA scandals more than justified the need for emergency spending. His conference committee co-chair, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., conceded that some members of his caucus likely will object to that expense, but said he is confident he can convince the rest of the need.
“Our veterans need a quick response,” he said. “We need to make sure our veterans aren’t standing in line waiting for care.”
Earlier versions of the compromise bill easily passed both chambers, but the conference committee has been bogged down for more than a month on the total cost of the measure and how to pay for the expense.
Miller and Sanders last Thursday held dueling press conferences accusing each other of hijacking the conference committee process, and casting doubt over whether any deal could be reached. But on Monday, they downplayed that conflict and spoke proudly of overcoming philosophical differences to reach a much-needed middle ground.
Veterans groups echoed that sense of relief.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Congress finding a way to “do its job” shouldn’t be celebrated, but the content of the compromise measure is worth praising.
“This is going to help veterans get access. This is going to help change the culture at VA,” he said. “This is all good news for veterans.”
Ray Kelley, national legislative service director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the compromise sends a message to veterans that public pressure is forcing changes within Congress and the department.
“We’re hearing from so many members who are frustrated with VA and resigned to the department never being fixed,” he said. “So this is obviously just a first step, but it’s an important one.”
Both Miller and Sanders said they are confident the legislation can be approved by both chambers this week and sent to the president to become law within days. The House is scheduled to start its summer break Thursday. The Senate leaves Friday.
The Senate also has on its agenda for the week the confirmation vote for Bob McDonald to become the next VA secretary. The two moves combined would give the department a new leader and billions in new funding, to go along with the mandate from lawmakers to restore public trust in the agency.